Of Ballots and Post-it Notes: Jeff Fischer and the Evolution of Elections

By Tihana Bartulac Blanc

June 21, 2022   |   0 comments

As the expert retires, millions of people owe their improved elections to his hard work

When I first met Jeff Fischer in Bosnia in the 1990s, he was already the person the world called to run elections after a war. 

When we worked together again in Kosovo in 2000, I learned that he often slept in his office. Maybe it was because of his dedication to his job, but more likely it had to do with the fact that the city’s so-called Grand Hotel wasn’t so grand. As a result of this unusual hoteling situation, most mornings I would arrive to my office to find tasks on neatly written Post-It notes lined up on my desk. This meant Jeff slept in the office, again.

I respected his dedication – and learned to appreciate his Post-It notes. By the time he was assigned to Kosovo, Jeff had earned the reputation and today, millions of people around the world owe a piece of their developing democracies and stable political systems to Jeff’s dedication and inventiveness.

Elections expert, Jeff Fischer

Jeff’s first Post-It instructed me to set up an election media center in Kosovo. It seemed like an odd priority. Garbage was smoldering on the street corners of the capital of Pristina with no municipal services to pick it up. Given the on-the-ground situation, setting up a modern media center for international journalists seemed to be of relatively low importance – not to mention wildly outside of my area of expertise. But those sorts of considerations never stopped Jeff.

This was before Sept. 11, 2001, and Kosovo was the focus of the world’s attention. Jeff knew the importance of the moment and that the media would play a key role in the perception of the elections. In the end, we improvised and transformed an indoor police sports hall into one of the best media centers in the world that greatly facilitated the coverage of the historic elections. It happened only because Jeff put similar Post-It notes on other people’s desks.

Jeff has always been more than an exceptional crisis manager. During more than three decades supporting elections around the world, he has repeatedly reinvented the field – relying on his mental repository of elections information and his constant creativity. Jeff had a dozen ideas about how elections should be run, and he surrounded himself with people who would experiment with them until they worked.

Jeff built at least part of his career on new ideas. For example, electoral violence prevention did not exist as a career or a field of study until Jeff got a hold of it, worked the concept and then tasked his colleagues to build it into a discipline.

During his 15 years at Creative, Jeff helped to launch the Elections Practice Area and remained at the forefront of its development.

Creative’s elections team was small and scrapy – but the size didn’t matter as the team introduced innovative approaches to elections, including the establishment of so-called “Election War Rooms” where we would churn out real time reports on topical elections, or inspiring one of the first internal elections using the Blockchain technology and filling niche areas when it came to electoral education and electoral security.

Thanks to Jeff’s vision we also moved to the forefront of using Ushahidi crowdsourcing tool to expand access for women and individual citizens to directly engage with political processes in their countries. Creative’s team went on to support democratic processes in places like South Sudan and conduct electoral security assessments all over West Africa.

Throughout his career, never once did Jeff’s enthusiasm, innovative thinking or belief in the power of true democracy wane. One of the lowest moments for all of us came during and after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Our hearts sank as we witnessed the post-election violence that we were used to around the world, but not at home.

Iraq Elections back in 2018.

But Jeff sprang into action immediately. His way of seeing events and breaking them down into components that could be addressed suddenly had application at home. Jeff launched an internal effort document and analyzed the violence we witnessed to understand how it compares to the rest of the world whose electoral problems and violence we had come to understand better.

This initial research would later lead to an assessment of the impact of the insurrection on perceptions of U.S. democracy and its promotion among allies, developing democracies and authoritarian regimes so that the strategies can be crafted to overcome these new concerns and doubts.  

The army of friends, admirers and mentees know that Jeff will never fully “retire.” Instead, he just moves on to the next hard thing. When he does, we’ll all be looking forward to the next version of his Post-It note.

Tihana Bartulac Blanc is a Senior Project Director in Creative’s Communities in Transition Division.
Senior Project Director Leora Addison and Chief of Party Terry Hoverter contributed to this blog.

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